NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has detected signs of water, along with evidence of clouds and haze, in the atmosphere of a hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a sun-like star more than a thousand light-years away, the US space agency said today.
The observation is the most detailed of its kind to date, demonstrating Webb’s unprecedented ability to analyze distant atmospheres, according to NASA. WASP-96 b is one of more than 5,000 confirmed exoplanets in the Milky Way.
Located about 1,150 light-years away in the southern constellation Phoenix, it represents a type of gas giant that has no direct analog in our solar system, it said in a statement.
With a mass less than half that of Jupiter and a diameter 1.2 times larger, WASP-96 b is much thicker than any planet orbiting our sun. With a temperature higher than 538 degrees Celsius, it is significantly warmer.
WASP-96 b orbits extremely close to its Sun-like star, just one-ninth the distance between Mercury and the Sun, completing a circuit every three and a half Earth days, according to NASA.
The combination of large size, short orbital period, puffy atmosphere and lack of polluting light from near-air objects makes WASP-96b an ideal target for atmospheric observations.
While the Hubble Space Telescope has analyzed numerous exoplanet atmospheres over the past two decades and recorded the first clear detection of water in 2013, Webb’s immediate and more detailed observation marks a giant leap in the search for potentially habitable planets beyond Earth.
On June 21, Webb’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) measured the light from the WASP-96 system for 6.4 hours as the planet passed over the star.
This resulted in a light curve showing the overall dimming of starlight during transit, and a transmission spectrum showing the brightness change of individual wavelengths of infrared light between 0.6 and 2.8 microns.
The light curve confirmed the planet’s properties that had already been determined from other observations – the planet’s existence, size and orbit.
The transmission spectrum revealed the previously hidden details of the atmosphere: the unambiguous signature of water, indications of haze and evidence of clouds thought not to exist based on previous observations.
A transmission spectrum is made by comparing star light filtered by a planet’s atmosphere as it moves over the star, with the unfiltered star light detected when the planet is next to the star.
Researchers can detect and measure the abundances of important gases in a planet’s atmosphere based on the absorption pattern — the locations and heights of peaks on the graph.
Just as humans have distinctive fingerprints and DNA sequences, atoms and molecules have characteristic wavelength patterns that they absorb.
Not only is the spectrum of WASP-96b the most detailed near-infrared transmission spectrum of an exoplanet atmosphere recorded to date, but it also covers a remarkably wide range of wavelengths, including visible red light and a portion of the spectrum not previously accessible. was from other telescopes, NASA said.
This part of the spectrum is particularly sensitive to water and other important molecules such as oxygen, methane and carbon dioxide.
Researchers will be able to use the spectrum to measure the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, limit the abundance of various elements such as carbon and oxygen, and estimate the temperature of the atmosphere with depth.
They can then use this information to draw conclusions about the planet’s overall makeup, as well as how, when and where it formed.
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